Russian officials give positive spin on global warming

August 01, 2007

MOSCOW - Global climate change means "we'll spend less on fur coats," Russian President Vladimir Putin quipped in 2003.

But increasingly, Russia's official stand on global warming seems to be: Why worry?

While global concerns over climate change conjure images of melting ice caps, submerged cities and massive droughts, some Russian experts are hailing global warming as the answer to Russia's prayers.

As the long and dreary Russian winters become balmier, billions of dollars will be saved on heating and there will be fewer cases of depression, says Vladimir Klimenko, a professor at the Moscow Energy Institute, whose lab is funded by the state-run oil and gas company.

Agriculture, ravaged by the cold and 70 years of Soviet collectivization, will blossom, and watermelons could grow in Moscow, he adds.

In the land of frozen tundra and winters that drag on into June, politicians and scientists are welcoming climate change as a panacea, not a harbinger of environmental apocalypse.

"For our great northern country, I don't today see any imminent problems for the next 100 years at least," said Konstantin Pulikovsky, who heads of Russia's environmental regulatory agency.

The upbeat assessment comes as Russia is bolstered by massive oil and gas wealth. It has led to calls for the Kremlin to abandon the Kyoto Protocol, the international treaty mandating the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, which Russia approved in 2004. (While the United States signed the treaty, the Bush administration has not submitted it to Congress for ratification.)

Critics, however, say the "good for Russia" argument ignores key problems.

"Because of drought, we'll lose a major part of the most productive soil of Russia," said Vladimir Chuprov, head of the energy department at Greenpeace Russia. "As a result, Russia will receive millions of climate migrants - farmers that can't work anymore."

Melting permafrost could destroy Russian cities situated above the Artic Circle. The breaking off of icebergs from Arctic ice sheets due to higher temperatures will make it difficult to exploit oil and gas reserves. And any money saved on winter heaters could be needed for air conditioners if summers heat up.

"We think Russia will lose more than it gains, like the whole planet," Chuprov said.

Meanwhile, the Russian parliament is debating whether global warming exists.

"I read an article by a group of scientists who I know and respect, and they say there won't be a warming, but prove there'll be a cooling," said Pyotr Romanov, a Communist Party deputy.

Russia is not the only northern nation to consider the benefits of warming.

The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway, along with Russia, are haggling over rights to the resource-rich Arctic, which may soon be free of ice.

Some economists predict that summer tourism will increase in Scandinavia as countries like Spain and Italy become too hot.

Klimenko, who runs a 10-person lab partly funded by state-owned gas behemoth Gazprom, predicts a temperature increase in central Russia of 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, double or triple the gain he says there'll be in Western Europe.

There could be winter energy savings of 10 percent to 15 percent, translating into around $17 billion a year, he said.

And navigation may become possible on the rivers Volga and Don year-round, allowing Russia to become a major transport corridor between Asia and Europe.

Russians are not convinced.

In an April survey of 1,600 people by Russian state polling agency VTsIOM, 18 percent said they thought climate change would benefit Russia, while 59 percent said it would not.

In Siberia, only 29 percent said the changes would be positive.